Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Roadside Diaries: Beer People {Edible Monterey Bay}

This article was published in the Summer 2014 issue of Edible Monterey Bay
You can view the entire issue: here.

Beer People: A Taproom Tour Reveals Another Reason to Celebrate Our Local Craft Beer Explosion
Story and Photos by Camilla M. Mann

Moments into my pub crawl with self-professed beergeeks Chris Nelson and Merideth Canham-Nelson, Merideth used the term ‘beer people.’ Scribbling the words on my notepad, I paused, “Define ‘beer people’.”

I was embarking on a beer adventure with true beer people - a couple who has visited nearly 900 breweries around the globe, maintain blog, and co-host KRML’s weekly Pub Talk. In 2008 Merideth, a social worker, and Chris, the Central Coast rep for Drake's Brewing Co., travelled around the globe, experiencing the world through beer culture. Each month they visited a major beer event or destination. Teachings From The Tap: Life Lessons From Our Year in Beer (Beer Trekker Press, 2012), Merideth's account of the experience, is part travelogue, part guidebook, and part personal story - all aimed at conveying the excitement of beer travel. It's also as the first beer travel book penned by a woman. (To the uninitiated, yes, there is a whole genre of beer travel literature.)

While I enjoy beer, I’m not a beer connoisseur. I’m certainly not a beergeek. But after hearing their definition of a beer person, I could become one. Beer people appreciate well-crafted beer. They’re excited about seeing new beers. And they like to share the beer experience with other beer people.

The timing on our beer tasting tour was impeccable. Many of the brewers were just returning from the World Beer Cup, the Olympics of beer competitions. Brewers from all over the globe seek recognition for their creativity and brewing ability at this event, but just one gold, one silver, and one bronze medal are awarded per category. Earning accolades at the World Beer Cup gold allows a  brewer to say that theirs is the best of its style on earth.

Discretion Brewing of Soquel had just brought home gold for their Song In Your Heart. So there may have been a more levity than usual in the breweries we visited. Then again, perhaps not - beer people are a gregarious group.

There are more than 40 breweries and taprooms in our region, and we chose to start at one of the newest, Alvarado Street Brewery in downtown Monterey, where owner J.C. Hill showed his progress on transforming the old Regency Theatre into a brewpub. Aaron Haas, formerly the sous chef at Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar, is the restaurant's chef and Hill is the brewer.

Alvarado Street was set to open just before this issue of EMB was scheduled to come out, but on the spring morning we arrived, it was still a work in progress. Lifting cardboard, Hill exposed the intricate tilework on the floor and even poured a bit of suds off the fermenter and gave us a whiff. It smelled bright and fruity. Merideth mentioned pineapple which I wouldn’t have discerned on my own but agreed.

From there we headed to neighboring Peter B's, which has earned  its place on the craft brew map under the leadership of brewer Kevin Clark.

Chris ordered a tasting tray of five beers that ran from light to dark, including their Belly Up Blonde Ale, Fort Ord Wheat, and Stout Resistance. Most surprisingly: I enjoyed the Legend of Laguna IPA. Typically I avoid IPAs. As Merideth admitted, about herself, “I’m not a hop-head.” But Peter B’s was hugely floral, crisp and, shockingly, my favorite of the bunch.

What made this an the other beers we'd try that day so unusual and delicious? Merideth and Chris, it turned out, were not only deeply knowledgeable guide - they were also gracious and patient teachers, and it was at Peter B's that they began to fill me in on the secrets to great craft brews.

The building blocks of beer are grain, water, yeast and hops. The grain is cracked and steeped in water, altering starches to sugars. That mash is boiled and hops added to create bitterness, balancing out the residual sweetness from the grains. After cooling, yeast is added to kick-off fermentation, converting sugar to alcohol.

Those are the brewing basics. Each stage impacts the beer. Grains produce sweet, roasted flavors; hops lend bitter, herbaceous characteristics. Yeast adds the earthiness and bready flavors.

But the possibilities become infinite as brewers use single hops, blended hops, single-strain yeast, wild yeast, and more. Honestly, when Chris talked about brewers matching mineral content of water in different places, my beer-neophyte brain began to spin. But it painted a clearer picture of what it means to craft beer – the flavor profile depends on how the brewer manipulates the ingredients. Crafting beer is an art.

Pointing at the tasting cards Peter B's provides, I inquired about IBUs.

IBU refers to the International Bitterness Unit scale which measures the amount of hops in a beer, starting at 0 and going to infinity; Chris and Merideth joked. But it’s only discernible to 100 IBUs. For example, the IPA was 80 but the wheat – more malty, less hoppy – only had 20 IBUs.

From Peter B’s, we hopped in their car, where I met Chris and Merideth’s dachshund Stout. He was tagging along because the next three stops were dog-friendly.

On the way to Sante Adairius in Capitola, Chris asked me, “Do you remember the first beer you tried?” I do. It was a Guinness, I had just finished a grueling exam, a classmate brought over a six-pack, and I cooked dinner. I vividly remember sitting cross-legged on a beanbag, balancing a plate of pasta and homemade marinara in one hand and the beer in the other.

One of the many things I learned that day: a crucial part of beer culture is sharing. At Sante Adairius Rustic Ales we were joined by Fran and Sean Fitzharris who plan to bring craft beer to the Hollister-area before the end of 2014 when they open Brewery Twenty-five. While they are still honing in on a location, they know that their brews will showcase ingredients from local farms. Even their name pays homage to San Benito County. Highway 25, running the length of the county, is an artery that connects all of the communities.

At Sante Adairius, owners Adair Paterno and Tim Clifford poured some of their beers and Adair shared a bottle she had picked up at the World Beer Cup. Adair and Tim’s approach to brewing is Belgian-inspired, focusing on producing well-constructed beer with an eye towards simplicity and character. We sipped their Anaïs, Sun’s Out, Simple: Summit, and more. Tim explained Saisons, a nebulous category of beers that are dry and often spicy.

Originating in Belgium, Saison means ‘season’ in French. Saisons were historically brewed during the winter and stored until summer when they hydrated farm workers when water wasn’t plentiful or suitable for drinking. Because Saisons weren’t brewed in antiseptic environments, multi-strain fermentations occurred, giving the beer complex, wild flavors. Each farmhouse had individual recipes and brewing techniques so Saisons differed vastly by farm. Hence the amorphous, broadly defined style.

From Capitola, we headed up the road to newly-opened Beer Thirty Bottle Shop & Pour House. Its debut turned Soquel into a mecca of sorts for craft beer lovers. Olive Moredock, who owns Beer Thirty with Craig Renfroe, was inspired to open a pub and beer garden after a trip to Portland last year. “We’re all about the beer,” says Olive. “We wanted to create a welcoming, community place where people can come with their dogs and kids and meet up with their friends.” Beer Thirty has thirty rotating taps, almost two hundred bottled varieties, and an off-leash area for canine friends.

Shawd DeWitt, one of their Cicerone-certified (think trained sommelier but for beer, not wine) servers, poured us the Lost Abbey Spontaneous Cheer, a tasty blended Sour Ale. The base beer was spontaneously fermented for six months and blended with white peach concentrate at kegging.

Drinking a beer at the brewery at which it was made is an integral part of the craft beer experience, so also in Soquel, we dropped by family-owned Discretion Brewing and chatted with Dustin Vereker, the brewery's "Chief Beer Ambassador." We enjoyed another tasting tray which included the brewery's Shimmer Pils, Uncle Dave's Rye IPA, Anniversary 2014 Saison, and, naturally, their gold medal-winning Song In Your Heart. 

Heading further north into downtown Santa Cruz, we stopped in at Lúpulo Craft Beer House which was jam-packed with beer industry folks for it long-awaited soft opening. Lúpulo –  which means ‘hops’ in Spanish – is a place for beer people to gather, drink beers at the long, community tables, and share their passion for craft brewing as well as delicious tapas.

 “The idea has been brewing for about a decade now. We just kept thinking that someone else would do it,” confesses Stuyvie Bearns Esteva, who owns Lúpulo with his wife Noëlle Marie Antolin. “But it never happened. So we’re doing it.” Stuyvie poured us his Doble Lúpulo, a double IPA, that was brewed in collaboration with Sante Adairius.

That collaboration is indicative of something special about brewers.

 “We have felt hugely supported by the other brewers. There is no real sense of competition, says Brewery Twenty Five's Sean Fitzharris. "It’s about camaraderie and community.”

Chris observed, “A rising tide raises all boats.”

After Lúpulo, we aimed for home with a stop by Post No Bills Craft Beer House in Sand City. It’s both beer tavern and retail shop. Our conversation circled back to ‘beer people.’

Experiencing beer is about the beer, certainly, but more than that, it’s about sharing the beer with others. Beer is only the conduit. Merideth expanded on that idea, “We may meet people over beer, but we form connections through conversations about the books we’re reading, places we’ve traveled, weiner dogs, and more.” I get it. Beer gives beer people the opportunity to forge friendships and find their commonalities beyond the brews.

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